Chile is world-famous for its diversity of dramatic and stunning landscapes, and one of the most spectacular areas to experience this is at the northernmost part of the country in the Atacama Desert. The vast sand dunes, rocky formations, and moon-like valleys of the world’s highest and driest desert lie in stark contrast against an unexpected backdrop of snow-capped volcanoes, sparkling white salt flats, bright blue lagoons, and red and gold sunsets. It also happens to be one of the richest places in Chile for archaeological ruins, museums, and human history, and it’s home to some of the world’s most advanced observatories and most spectacular stargazing.

How to get there

LATAM offers daily direct flights from Santiago to Calama El Loa Airport (about 2 hours). From there, it’s about a 1.5 hour drive to the small, quaint town of San Pedro de Atacama, the base for most Atacama adventures. The region’s countless highlights are generally about 40 minutes to 1.5 hours away from San Pedro by vehicle.

Those who combine a visit to the Atacama Desert with the Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia will transfer overland across the Bolivian-Chile border at Hito Cajon, about 40 minutes from San Pedro.

When to go

The Atacama region has a typical desert climate, hot and dry year-round. The temperature varies very little throughout the year, averaging about 69°F (20°C) during the day in the coolest months of June and July to 76°F (24°C) in the warmest months of December and January. While the climate doesn’t change too much season to season, the temperatures can vary drastically from day to night, sometimes plummeting below freezing after the sun sets.

The Atacama Desert is known for its clear skies but for those going specifically for stargazing, be aware that there can be more cloud cover December through February (though even then, the sky is still clear the majority of the time). For the best stargazing, avoid traveling around the dates of the full moon each month.

What to do

The Atacama Desert is a dream destination for photographers, hikers, and those who simply want to marvel at some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes. Just a few of the major highlights are:

The Cordillera de la Sal

The “Salt Mountain Range” is arguably the best area to explore Atacama’s classic desert landscapes. The ground appears to be dusted with snow, but it’s actually a layer of crunchy sparkling white salt. The waves of craggy peaks and towering rock formations of Valle de la Luna’s (Moon Valley) aptly-named lunar landscape turn deep red in the spectacular sunset. In Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley), the towering dunes are a popular place for sandboarding.

The Landscapes of the Altiplanico – Red Rocks, Salt Flats, and Lagoons

The Atacama Desert is so much more than sandy, beige landscapes. It’s perhaps quite surprisingly a very colorful place, and the altiplanico is the most iconic area to experience this. This part of Atacama is dotted with bright blue lakes and smaller lagoons, like Laguna Cejar, which has a salt concentration high enough that visitors can weightlessly float upon it. The Chaxa Lagoon within Los Flamencos National Reserve is home to a resident population of 3 different species of flamingo. One of the most colorful and striking places in all of Atacama is the Red Rocks, beautiful rocky formations colored red from iron oxidation that border a soft turquoise lake.

Exploring the Atacama’s culture and human history

This region is an archeaological capital of Chile with remains of ancient villages, museums, and petroglyphs dating back thousands of years. Local artisans have a wonderful array of crafts, jewelry, and artwork in shops in town.

Stargazing

At night, venture out for a cup of hot chocolate while gathering around a telescope to take advantage of the awe-inspiring stargazing. The high altitude and lack of precipitation mean it has among the clearest skies in the world.

Refreshing waterfalls and hot springs

Although the Atacama is the world’s driest desert, visitors can still experience hidden waterfall hikes through cactus forests and relaxing hot springs. The Puritama Hot Springs, a collection of 8 pools of geothermal spring water nestled in a canyon in the desert, were believed to have healing properties and were used for hundreds of years by the local Atacama people for medicinal purposes.

Where to stay

Due to the remoteness of the region, most of the lodging options are all-inclusive properties. Naraya Alto Atacama, Explora and Tierra Atacama are top options that offer a menu of half-day and full-day shared small-group excursions to choose from, operated by the lodge’s own expert guides. Awasi Atacama is an intimate luxury Relais & Chateaux property that provides a private guide and vehicle for the most personalized experience in the region. For those who prefer privately-guided or top choice.

What to pack

As with many destinations in Chile, packing lots of layers is very important. During the day, shorts, t-shirts, and lots of protective sun gear like a brimmed hat and sunglasses are very important. The temperature can drop drastically at night, even getting into freezing temperatures, so a jacket, gloves, and a warm hat is also important. A reusable water bottle and sunscreen is important for any destination, but especially so in the world’s highest and driest desert.

Tips to design a unique program

– A minimum of four nights in the Atacama Desert is recommended for sufficient time to adjust to the high altitude. Start slow with an easygoing half-day excursion, be sure to drink plenty of water, and limit alcohol intake. Coca leaf tea is also available at many hotels and cafes around town – do what the locals do and enjoy this tea, which has been used for thousands of years to help mitigate the symptoms of altitude sickness.

– Rather than solely vehicle-based exploration, experience the desert by hiking, biking, horseback riding, and even sandboarding down the dunes.

– Although the stargazing is world-famous here, visiting during the full moon offers an alternative spectacular unique experience. The brilliance of the full moon means nighttime hikes and horesback rides and a chance to see the lunar landscapes bathed in silver light.

– Continue the adventure through these remote and stunning landscapes and combine your trip to the Atacama Desert with a visit to the Uyuni salt flats of Bolivia. Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, with miles of prehistoric salt-caked desert stretching to the horizon as far as the eye can see. From February to April, the few inches of rain that fall during this time collect on top of the rock-hard salt and transform the landscapes into a giant mirror, considered one of the most spectacular natural sights to see in all of South America.

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